“Lieutenant McDowell, Sir…My planes are jammed at full dive!”

“Diving Officer, get a handle on that!” I ordered while checking my depth. Three hundred feet and dropping. I was doing twenty knots—depth was increasing fast. The stern planes frozen at full dive caused the 425-foot-long fleet ballistic missile sub to pitch down by the bow twenty-five degrees. 

“Stern planes are still jammed!” My Diving Officer, Lieutenant junior grade (Lt.j.g.) Dick Franconi said. “Manual bypass doesn’t solve the problem.”

“Chief-of-the-Watch…” I said.

“Working on it,” Master Chief George Sedrick said. “Sonofabitch isn’t responding!”

I checked the depth. “All stop!” I ordered as the sub passed 500 feet. “Back full!” Maybe I could shake it loose—whatever it was.

As the sub began to shudder from the reverse turns, the captain charged out of his stateroom in his skivvies. “What the f***’s going on, Mac?”

I briefed him quickly as we passed 600 feet. “All stop!” I ordered. “Chief…?”

“Still jammed, Sir.”

“Pump all forward tanks to sea!” I ordered. Perhaps I could bring the bow up that way. “Full rise on the Fairwater planes! Try to get us level.” We still had some forward motion, so that might help. I punched the Sonar intercom. “Give me your contacts, Sonar.”


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“Clear three-sixty, Conn. We had a tug off the starboard bow a half-hour ago, but he’s gone now.”

Seven hundred feet.

“Get the captain’s jumpsuit from his stateroom,” I told the messenger. Turning to the Fairwater Planesman who controlled the fairwater planes, the rudder, and the engine order telegraph, I ordered, “Ahead one third!” 

The captain and I watched the bubble. We were still down about fifteen degrees. As the screw took a bite, the bow dropped another four degrees. “Ahead slow—make bare steerageway! Chief…pump water from all tanks!”

As the captain donned his jumpsuit, a loud screech penetrated the hull from somewhere aft. A second later, the Control Center sound-powered phone warbled. With a nod, the captain indicated I should answer it.

“EOW here…something’s scraping along the port hull back here. Making a hell-of-a-noise.”

“Yeah, Jer…We hear it up here. Any ideas?”

“Nada, Mac, no f***ing idea.”

“Passing one-thousand feet, Sir!” The Chief-of-the-Watch announced.

“Can you free up the stern planes?” I asked the EOW.

“They’re jammed tight. Never seen anything like it,” Lt. Jerry Dunston said. He was the Reactor Control Assistant—number two in the Engineering Department and the current Engineering-Officer-of-the-Watch. “Nothing we can do here right now, Mac, nothing.”

“Passing eleven-hundred-fifty feet!” Master Chief Sedrick announced. “Tanks are dry…we’re still headed down.” 

About a minute passed.

“Passing test-depth, thirteen-hundred feet.”

Around us, the sub creaked loudly as the hull compressed from the extreme outside pressure. I looked at the skipper. “You have the watch, Mac,” he said, “and you’re running out of options. You know what to do.”

I picked up the 1MC mike and looked at the skipper again. He smiled grimly and nodded. I was glad he was at my side ready to counter anything stupid I might do, but it was pretty clear the skipper wanted me to do it.

“Sound the Collision Alarm! Emergency-blow all main ballast!”

A three-second rising sweep-tone filled the sub. Immediately after that, high-pressure air forcing its way into the ballast tanks surrounding the bow and stern drowned out every other sound.

“Passing fourteen-hundred feet!” Master Chief Sedrick announced. “Slowing…”

The skipper and I stood quietly on the raised platform of the Conn, watching the depth gauge as the bow lifted to nearly level.

“Passing twelve-hundred feet!” Master Chief Sedrick announced.

“Secure the blow!” I ordered as the sub continued its rise.

As the sound of rushing air subsided, the three-second rising sweep-tone of the Collision Alarm once again filled the sub. 

“Passing nine-hundred feet,” Master Chief Sedrick announced, “rising fast!”

“Sonar, you got anything?” I asked over the intercom.

“Negative, Conn. Too much sound. I’m deaf.”

“Secure the Collision Alarm,” the skipper told me. Then he reached for the 1MC mike. “This is the captain. We are on an uncontrolled ascent to the surface. We don’t know what’s above us, so grab hold of something and hang on!”


It seemed to take forever, but in actuality, it took only about a minute. One moment we were rising like a skyscraper elevator, and the next, we slammed into something and stopped dead, surrounded by the awful sound of shrieking, tearing metal.

I tried raising the attack periscope, but it didn’t move. The skipper tried the navigation scope, got it to rise about a foot, and that was it.

“Mac, go to the Bridge and see what’s going on,” the skipper told me. “Captain’s got the Conn,” he announced to the Control Room personnel as I donned a headset with boom-mike and started up the ladder leading to the Bridge.

I opened the lower trunk hatch. It swung up into the trunk. “Trunk’s dry,” I announced to the Control Room. I climbed the rest of the way and cracked the upper hatch. “Just a few drops of water,” I announced as I let the spring open it all the way. I squinted into the bright noon sun. “Conn, Bridge,” I said over the circuit, “it looks like we surfaced directly beneath something—a barge maybe. I can’t tell for sure. Whatever we struck must have sunk.” I scanned around the surfaced sub, gently rocking in the nearly calm sea off Cádiz, clearly visible to the northeast. “There’s a tug two hundred yards off the port bow. A guy on the stern is chopping frantically at a steel tow hawser. It’s stretched taut pulling down the tug’s stern.” I watched for several seconds. “The hawser just parted…disappeared below the surface immediately. The tug’s on an even keel. Now the guy is screaming bloody murder, shaking his fists at us.”

“I’m sending lookouts to the Bridge,” the skipper said in my ears, “and the photographer.”

“There’s more,” I said. “Two missile hatches are sprung, and the Bridge is pretty much a twisted mess.”

“The screw and rudder work,” the skipper said. “You got the Conn. Keep us away from anything else, but stay as close to where you are as possible. I’m on my way to the Bridge.”


It was a formal hearing—just the skipper and me. It seems the tug was towing an old WWII Victory Ship to a Mediterranean destination to be scrapped. The tug went DIW (that’s dead in the water for you non-Navy types), and the Victory ship drifted up on the tug. Sonar didn’t hear anything because the tug had shut down its engines, and the Victory ship didn’t have any. The steel hawser catenary dropped down 300 feet and wedged between our port stern planes and the sub’s hull. That caused the hydraulics system to force the planes to full dive and keep them there. When we emergency-surfaced, we did so directly under the Victory ship, piercing its hull with the ice-hardened submarine sail, and sinking her. It was an unfortunate accident with no assignment of fault. That was the official finding of the Navy inquiry.

The skipper received a special commendation for saving the billion-dollar ballistic missile submarine with no loss of life, and I was given an official pat on the back and the opportunity to choose my next duty assignment. I chose the Man-in-the-Sea Program, not having any idea what it was really all about. I ended up as the Officer-in-Charge of a team of saturation divers. We shipped out on the USS Halibut for a highly classified mission that changed the course of the Cold War (as related in my account, Operation Ivy Bells).


And that brings us to the present. Following the secret award ceremony in the Mare Island Rodman Theater described in Operation Ivy Bells, Defense Secretary John Lehman’s aide motioned for me to approach his boss.

“We have a special assignment for you, Lieutenant Commander McDowell.”

“Sir?” I said.

“That’s right,” Lehman. You are herewith promoted to Lieutenant Commander. In sixty days, you, and in thirty days, your team will report for temporary duty to the Commanding Officer, USS Teuthis (SSNR-2), at General Dynamics Electric Boat Division in Groton, Connecticut.” He looked left and right, and continued quietly, “This assignment is Top Secret/SCI0F. Everything, including the vessel name, is classified. You and your team will be briefed on arrival.” He shook my hand firmly. “Good luck, Commander!”

Robert G. Williscroft is a retired submarine officer, deep-sea and saturation diver, scientist, author, and lifelong adventurer. He holds degrees in marine physics and meteorology, and a doctorate for developing a system to protect SCUBA divers in contaminated water. An author of nonfiction, Cold War thrillers and hard science fiction, he lives in Centennial, Colorado.